Is Suicide Painless?

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Review of 'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare, The Old Vic

Trevor Nunn's new contemporary dress production of Hamlet is a breath of fresh air. Ben Whishaw in the starring role is just 23 years old, Samantha Whittaker playing Ophelia is still at university, and the emphasis on youth throughout the production brings new meaning to the play. As the text makes constant reference to Hamlet and Ophelia's youth, this production may perhaps be more in keeping with how it was originally intended.

We first meet Hamlet at the royal court of Denmark where his mother, Gertrude, has just married her recently deceased husband's brother, Claudius, who is now king. The royal court is a glittering affair, with everyone dressed in sparkling white, drinking champagne, resembling something out of The Great Gatsby. Gertrude is very reminiscent of our own dearly departed Princess Di, partying, flirting and playing to the press photographers at every opportunity. Into this meeting of the beautiful people slouches Hamlet. Skinny, pasty-faced and dressed from head to toe in black complete with woolly hat rammed down on his head, Hamlet is the epitome of a disaffected philosophy student.

Nunn's production concentrates on the struggle of Hamlet to come to terms with life and death or, as he says, 'To be or not to be'. Hamlet has been called back from university in Germany with the news that his father has unexpectedly died. When he reaches home he finds that his mother has already remarried. In this production Gertrude and Claudius have a very steamy and physical relationship, so it is clear that this is no marriage just for official purposes. Gertrude was having an affair with Claudius while still married to Hamlet's father. Hamlet was under the impression that his parents' marriage had been blissful, so all this sends him into a bit of an emotional tailspin. He effectively has a breakdown and contemplates suicide. Seen in the context of Hamlet's youth this behaviour seems very realistic, as does his relationship with the schoolgirl Ophelia.

The personal relationships both between the young people and with their elders are portrayed well. The youth of the lead actors helps to explain the intense emotions expressed by the characters. Where the production does fall down is in the wider politics of the play. Hamlet is a political play rife with plotting, intrigue and spying. There is something rotten in Shakespeare's Denmark, and we see Norway waiting in the wings to invade the state, which is collapsing through the weight of its own corruption. At one point Hamlet speaks of his distress at the ease with which thousands of soldiers are sent to their deaths. In the present political climate it seems particularly strange that Nunn chooses to virtually ignore this aspect of the play.

However, this is a really fresh and energetic production that forces the audience to look at the play in a radically different way to previous productions.